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Saturday Night Live’s “Hanukkah Harry” gave Jewish people their own Santa

For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays. Today: Saturday Night Live’s “Hanukkah Harry.”

Given the oft-repeated supposition that Jewish people run show business, you’d think they’d make it their business to make some better Hanukkah shows. After all, every year Christians produce so much holiday garbage, networks like ABC Family and Lifetime can stuff every hour of December with movies where overworked moms learn the true meaning of Christmas from a faded TV star. Meanwhile, those who celebrate Hanukkah are left with barely enough entertainment to burn off for all eight days (a struggle that, at the very least, might help them relate to their ancestors’ hardships).

Faced with such a relative dearth of Hanukkah glurge, it’s strangely fallen to Saturday Night Live to fill the void. Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song” continues to appear in heavy rotation as one of the sole rejoinders to the hundreds of Christmas tunes on the radio; meanwhile, his Eight Crazy Nights is part of the annual tradition of being reluctantly flipped to on TBS, by Jewish families who don’t have it in them to watch Yentl (or whatever). But the show’s greatest contribution to the Hanukkah faithful—and the one that reveals just how sorely underserved that area of entertainment is—was Hanukkah Harry, a sketch character whose fleeting appearances accidentally created a tradition that’s already long evolved past its roots, a lot like Hanukkah itself.

Hanukkah Harry made his SNL debut exactly 25 years ago on December 16, 1989, during a fine, but otherwise not particularly memorable, episode hosted by Andie MacDowell. Though it wasn’t evident at the time, the show was about to enter one of its frequent “transitional” phases, as the older players of the incredibly solid late-’80s cast began to yield to newer, younger faces like Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley. Most notably, the turn of the new year would mark the beginning of the end for Jon Lovitz, a true SNL survivor who had kept the show afloat even in its rockiest, immediate post-Dick Ebersol days with a slowly amassed stable of recurring characters. But as regrettable as his departure was, with Hanukkah Harry, Lovitz arguably went out on one that would eclipse them all, at least in terms of cultural impact.

The premise of “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas” is as familiar and formulaic as the many Christmas specials it’s spoofing: Santa, played by Phil Hartman, falls ill on Christmas Eve, leaving no one to deliver the toys that year—no one, that is, except for Santa’s Jewish counterpart Hanukkah Harry, who’s the only the one with the magic to get it done. At least, technically speaking.

Much as Hanukkah counters the Christmas miracle of virgin birth by celebrating a really great lamp, Hanukkah Harry’s magic is a tad more practical than Santa’s. His beard is more of a traditional, orthodox affair—no need to make a big thing out of it. Harry prefers a sensible black overcoat, his only peacocking indulgence a Santa-style hat that’s decked out in blue and white (the colors of the Israeli flag). And rather than going to the fanciful, unnecessary extravagance of eight flying reindeer, Harry rides a humble cart pulled by his three trusty donkeys, Moische, Herschel, and Schlomo. Harry even works from what appears to be an ordinary tailoring shop up on Mount Sinai, presumably dealing with none of the tax hassles that would come with living at the North Pole.

In many ways, of course, Harry is just a collection of these sorts of Jewish stereotypes. He speaks in an exaggerated New Yawk Yiddish accent, and he brings a coffee ring to Santa—you always bring food to the sick—while authoritatively suggesting cottage cheese to settle a stomach and bananas to put you to sleep, like every Jewish-mom joke ever told. Presented with the traditional milk and cookies after shuffling down the chimney, Harry sniffs the glass and exclaims that he better put it in the fridge before it spoils.

Most obviously, there’s the gifts: socks and a dreidel for Victoria Jackson’s little girl character, and for Mike Myers’ little boy, some chocolate coins and a nice pair of slacks. (“They’re a little big, but you’ll grow into ’em!”) All told, Hanukkah Harry feels less like a creation born of knowing Jews writing for themselves than a manifestation of the three or four things gentiles could probably name about Hanukkah, based on years of watching Jackie Mason.

And yet, it’s all undeniably funny, right down to its Hallmark-and-the-Jewish Anti-Defamation League-sponsored message that everyone is “pretty much the same,” because it’s saved by the self-awareness that holiday specials are hacky—and why should Hanukkah be any different? Most importantly, Lovitz’s departure the next season saved Harry from being dragged out year after year. SNL, knowing it had an instant hit on its hands, couldn’t resist having Harry save Easter a mere four months later, at which point Harry—his “Oy stop, you’re embarrassing me!” catchphrase in tow—was already experiencing diminishing returns.

Thanks in large part to not being run into the ground, Harry has achieved a surprising immortality: He’s since been adopted as something of an actual, genuine Santa for Jews. “Hanukkah Harry” was name-dropped by Jonathan Safran Foer in The New York Times, and again by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. He’s been spotted in an NPR report, crashing an annual Santa pub crawl in Salt Lake City. You can find Hanukkah Harry in online cartoons and children’s books. You can sing along with his further exploits in the song “I Saw Hanukkah Harry Beat Up Santa.” And of course, you can buy (or rent—it’s more practical!) your own Hanukkah Harry costume, in both SNL-orthodox and non-orthodox versions. In almost all of these instances, the sketch isn’t even mentioned. Hanukkah Harry just is.

Twenty-five years after the sketch first aired, Harry has become a genuine—albeit tongue-in-cheek—part of Jewish folklore, even among people who weren’t even born in 1989, and who have no idea of the actual story behind him. His development is not unlike the way Santa Claus was morphed and refracted from figures of pagan gods through Coca-Cola ads, finally becoming the holly-jolly fat man we all know today. Who’s to say that, another 25 years from now, Hanukkah Harry won’t have similarly been handed down from generation to generation, his true origins eventually shrouded by time?